[Review] – Les Misérables

8 Jan

Les Misérables

Title: Les Misérables
Year: 2012
Director: Tom Hooper
Writer: William Nicholson, based on the music by Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boubil, with lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer, based on the novel by Victor Hugo
Starring: Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, Amanda Seyfried, Eddie Redmayne, Helena Bonham Carter, Sacha Baron Cohen, Samantha Barks, Aaron Tveit
MPAA Rating: PG-13, suggestive and sexual material, violence and thematic elements
Runtime: 157 min
IMDb Rating: 8.2
Rotten Tomatoes: 70%
Metacritic: 63

I remember when I first decided to start a blog to review films I vowed I’d try to see as many films from any given year I could, so that I could get a real overview of the whole year in film and not try not to skip those films which I knew were just disasters waiting to happen. I also vowed that I’d see at least one more film each year than I had seen the previous one. In 2010, my first year doing this, I saw 210 films, which I thought was a pretty good number. In 2011 I saw 256 releases from that year, upping the quota from the previous year by a whopping 46 films. That number, 256, always seemed pretty huge and I doubted I’d be able to pass it this year. Well, Les Misérables (though I’m seeing it in January) is the 256th 2012 release I’ve seen, and I still have a few more films to go, so I guess 2013 will be the real challenge.

I take this walk down memory lane not just because I’m proud of the milestone (though I really am) but because in that first year I reviewed films the film that held the 13th spot (with an A) was Tom Hooper‘s The King’s Speech. When I give out grades and put a movie in my rankings I leave it there, rankings are my initial reaction to films, if I end up liking them more (or less) as time goes on or as I get to see it another time I don’t alter the rankings. In 2010 David Fincher‘s The Social Network had the second place in my yearly rankings, below Darren Aronofsky‘s Black Swan, that order would be reversed if you asked me today, but the rankings show what I thought back then.

Well, back then I thought The King’s Speech was an A. I’ve seen it again and think it’s more like a strong A-, though I’m still absolutely enamored by the performance Colin Firth gave in it, my favorite from a lead actor in 2010. Maybe I’m a bit biased to downgrade it because of how infuriated I am that The King’s Speech took the Best Picture Oscar from The Social Network (a vastly superior film) and even more enraged that Mr. Hooper took the Best Director trophy from Mr. Fincher (a vastly superior artist). I honestly had cultivated a bit of dislike for Mr. Hooper and told myself I wouldn’t like what he did next.

What he chose to do next was Les Misérables. That made it harder for me to think of disliking. The musical and the book are absolute classics which I love, and then you had the fact that the cast was filled with people I respect like hell, especially Anne Hathaway, and then you had the fact that Mr. Hooper chose to record the singing live on set instead of adding enhanced vocals later on in post-production, a decision which I thought was incredibly daring and impossible not to admire, even if I wasn’t unsure how it would play out. So I went into it thinking I might actually like it, but I left feeling rather underwhelmed, to be honest.

I mean the film’s obviously well-made, and some of the performances here are just a thing of beauty, but I ultimately thought it was just too pompous and grand most of the time. Of course, an epic story in 19th century France about an ex-convict fleeing from a ruthless Police Inspector while agreeing to care for the young daughter of an ill factory worker, dealing with love and sacrifice and redemption while it’s at it, will always be a bit bombastic, but I don’t know, I just honestly thought this was too much.

And this really has nothing to do with my opinions of Mr. Hooper. Like I said, I actually thought I’d love this movie, and as many directorial missteps as one can point out here I still think there’s a lot worth applauding, and when Ms. Hathaway wins the Best Supporting Actress Oscar (and she will) I’ll be clapping for her, even if someone else is probably a tad more deserving (holla, Amy Adams) because she still delivers a tremendously brave performance here worth recognizing. The thing is, it’s just damn hard to translate a musical to the screen successfully.

I genuinely think this is a good film, though, just far from a great one. A problem I had with it was the unrelenting use of close-ups when the actors were singing. I get it that he does this so that we can connect with the emotions and feel the song, to kind of replicate the feeling of watching it live on stage, but it doesn’t really work. I mean, it works at times, sure, but not with every single number.

Considering how amazing the sets and the views are it feels a tad disjointed to have him shift into this low-angle close-up the second someone bursts into song, following them around, looking up at them. It’s supposed to get us into their plights but it took me out of the movie. By the way, that’s not to say that style didn’t work, it will provoke tears around the world, I just didn’t like it all that much.

As for the decision to have his actors sing live on set? Well, I respect the decision. I respect it because it took balls and few filmmakers would have gone for it, you have to give the man his kudos for that. I just don’t think it works well. Like the close-ups, it works well sometimes, mostly when you have Hugh Jackman as the escaped prisoner Jean Valjean, because this is a guy who’s spent more than his fair share of time doing musicals on Broadway and who knows how to do this, he knows how to sell the material. Most of the actors however either over-sell it or just plain don’t have the chops to sing such insanely demanding songs with a camera six inches from their face.

The actor who seriously didn’t do it for me? Well, that would (easily) be Russell Crowe as Javert, the evil Police Inspector. The producers obviously cast him in the part because of his looks and because he’s a big name that would draw attention to the film, but he just can’t sing. Or well, he can sing because he has a rock band in Australia, he just can’t sing these Javert jams, an added frustration because the Javert numbers are probably the best songs in all of the original musical. He’s by far the weakest link of this whole production, and I genuinely believe the fact that Les Miz isn’t being talked about as a stronger Best Picture contender is his fault; a great Javert would’ve made this a great film, instead we get one that’s acted nicely enough but that’s horribly sung.

As for the other actors, well I really do have to give a shout-out to Eddie Redmayne and Aaron Tveit. Props to them. Mr. Redmayne is a relatively unknown actor with a lead role (especially compared to the heavyweights he’s up against, and especially since I’m not a fan of this character in the original musical) and he’s honestly great, like star-making-role kind of great, this guy’s going to be around for a while, just look at what he does with “Empty Chairs At Empty Tables” number. And then Mr. Tveit absolutely owns the role of Enjorlas in a way that really surprised me, plus he has a brilliant pitch which helps a lot.

Those two were the ones I love, but also big props to Amanda Seyfried and Samantha Barks. Ms. Seyfried genuinely got into the role of Cosette and brought forward things about her character that were awesome to see, I thought her acting was flawless here, sincerely, and her voice was just impeccable as well. Then you have Ms. Barks, the girl who played Eponine in the stage production and who gets to reprise her here, and it shows that she’s done this before on-stage. It shows because she’s the one that most pulls of the trick of making you forget that she’s singing, I loved that about her performance, “A Little Fall Of Rain” may be the realest moment of the entire film.

Then, of course, there’s Fantine. Ms. Hathaway doesn’t overact a second in this film, in fact you could say she underplays the role most people overplay, she’s amazing and her “I Dreamed A Dream” performance alone has sewn that Oscar up for her. That number is absolute emotional abuse, there’s no way not to cry as she sings, and to have Ms. Hathaway be by far the best thing about this movie and have the most lasting effect of anyone in it while only actually being in for the first third is a testament to her performance.

People who love the musical will probably love this. Probably. I love the musical which I why I liked this movie, and I’m pretty sure that if my connection to the musical were null I’d be giving this a C+ or something. I mean, visually it’s fantastic and all, and people who have no clue about the story will be allowed to follow it and get swept it, but there’s just no denying the fact that vocally it falls short more often than not. Having the actors sing live adds to the realism of it, granted, but when some of them make it kind of rough to follow the melody you can’t help but wonder if it didn’t hurt the movie; if you don’t know the music and the lyrics it may prove hard to follow, not to mention it sucks when the voices falter a bit.

Still it’s great to see these stunning emotions on-screen, to see them portrayed with such energy and passion and commitment, even if it’s just too over-the-top and flawed. It’s an epic film, that’s for sure, and it’s more than worth your time and money, it’s worth giving Anne Hathaway an Oscar, worth applauding for taking on the most beloved of stage musicals and doing something daring with it. It’s just not worth calling it a masterpiece or a great film or anything else. At least this time around this won’t take Best Picture or Best Director from worthier films and filmmakers, though the film (for sure) and Mr. Hooper (probably) will still take nomination slots from better names, but that’s something I can live with.

Grade: B+

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